FrightFest 2012 – Ben’s Weekend Report
Festival Report by Ben Bussey
FrightFest the 13th: unlucky for some? For this writer, perhaps so, I’m afraid. This was my third visit to the festival, but this time around circumstances dictated I couldn’t attend the full five days, having to instead make do with the bulk of the middle three. As such, I had to miss a fair few of the films I was most keen to see, including Grabbers, Dead Sushi and American Mary. As for what I did see; FrightFest line-ups tend to be a bit of a mixed bag, but might this year have proved to be more miss than hit? Hmm… well, allow me to elaborate…
I contemplated writing a full-length review of Nightbreed: the Cabal Cut but decided that it wouldn’t really be fair, given that what we were shown – by the admission of the men behind this re-edit, Mark Miller and Russell Cherrington – is far from a finished product. Spliced together from VHS copies of both the existing version of Nightbreed and a rough cut of Clive Barker’s original full-length version, as you might expect the sound and picture quality was less than stellar, but even once that’s all cleaned up for the planned DVD/Blu-ray (which I have every confidence will happen) it’ll still be sure to make for a strange viewing experience. Thing is, Nightbreed always was a disjointed, awkward, untidy film, and really it feels even more so in this extended version. The tone and the pacing are still all over the place, the central performances still feel a bit laboured (outside of the wonderful villianous turn by David Cronenberg), and there’s still not nearly enough time devoted to savouring the bizarre beauty of Midian and its inhabitants; and sadly that’s not going to change, given that Miller informed us in the Q&A that the cut we saw features all there is to be seen of the monsters. Instead we have a lot more of the sadistic hillbilly cops (a minus), an extended arc for the Catholic priest and bit more of Boone and Annie’s love story (a plus), and a really fucking odd country rock number (still not sure how I feel about that one). I still think it’s a film that deserves to be out there for fans to see, but honestly it’s got me more convinced than ever that, in this instance, the best thing to be done with Nightbreed is a remake in some capacity. Here’s hoping the planned TV series gets off the ground.
Next up, this year’s Total Icon was Dario Argento. After introducing this award segment via a rather stilted conversation between Total Film’s Jamie Graham and Tobe Hooper in 2010, and sort of side-stepping it last year with an interview with a considerably more talkative Larry Fessenden, the tête–à–tête betwixt Graham and Argento threatened to be a bit hairy at first given the language barrier, but actually things smoothed out quite nicely. Unsurprisingly, the question “how come all your films are crap these days?” didn’t come up, but unlike with Hooper two years back Argento’s modern work was given some consideration, including some talk of Dracula 3D, none of which was anywhere near as interesting as Dario’s account of Rutger Hauer disappearing from the set only to be found later in the bushes with a Russian girl. There were also more than a few disparaging remarks on the upcoming David Gordon Green remake of Suspiria (Argento is so utterly uninvolved in the project that Graham had to inform him of the American director’s name). Oh, and massive props to editor Alex Kidd for assembling a lovely sizzle reel featuring a couple of Dario’s best melodramatic moments, not only from his films, but from some hilarious Italian TV commercials. Just a shame the participants in the Q&A didn’t seem to realise they were supposed to ask a question, rather than profess their undying love for the man in as long-winded a fashion as possible. But hey, just goes to show the reaction Argento inspires to this day; and even though I’m not that big a fan, I accept and understand how revered the man is.
I missed next feature Hidden in the Woods (though given that I haven’t seen or heard a single positive word about it I gather I didn’t miss much), and I’m afraid to say I didn’t get too far into the one after that: V/H/S reminded me just why I tend to despise found footage, as it gave me a case of motion sickness so bad I had to leave within the first half hour. Yup, that’s me, guts of steel, Brutal As Hell to the core. This being the case I really can’t offer an appraisal of the movie, except to say that what I did see in between holding my breath and lowering my eyes intermittently in a bid to offset nausea were a bunch of scenes of dickhead males desperate to film themselves molesting girls, and not long thereafter paying dearly for their sins. That kind of morality in a horror film has always struck me as a bit disingenuous; purporting to be against voyeurism, whilst also providing a voyeuristic kick. But again, I didn’t see the whole film so I can’t really judge if that’s the overriding message. Still, what little I saw did leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, which was not limited to my own creeping bile. (For a proper critique, see Britt Hayes’ review from SXSW.)
I got back in time for a brief preview of Byzantium, the new vampire film from Neil Jordan, with legendary producer Steve Woolley and writer Moira Buffini in attendance. Again, don’t really want to pass judgement on a film based on a little bit of unfinished material taken out of context, but it didn’t look especially impressive. However much the film has been hailed as a return to The Company of Wolves territory for Jordan and Woolley, this didn’t feel that way at all; instead it was laboured, overly verbose, too stagey (unsurprising considering it’s adapted from Buffini’s stageplay). Still, the finished product may well be worlds apart tonally, and the snippet did include a moment of a corset-clad Gemma Arteton bathing in a waterfall of blood, so it definitely can’t be all bad.
Anyway, after V/H/S disagreed with me I was naturally very happy indeed to go into [REC]³: Génesis knowing it would abandon the shaky POV camcorder angle early on. The original [REC] is one of the few found footage films I’ve really loved, and while I enjoyed the first sequel it just felt like more of the same, embellishments to the series mythos notwithstanding. The fresh approach taken here, in both stylistic and narrative terms, was therefore most welcome in my book, and I’m happy to report I concur with Marc and Nia: this is one of the most enjoyable splatter flicks I’ve seen in ages. Comparisons to Evil Dead 2, Chainsaw 2 and/or Braindead are very appropriate indeed; by contrast with the harsher tone of the first two films, this is the kind of horror movie designed to have you whooping and cheering in your seat, and Paco Plaza proves every bit as adept at delivering jokes as he is at shocks. And Leticia Dolera… what can I say but (Homer Simpson drooling noise). I should hope we’ll be seeing a great many ladies dressing up as Clara for Halloween in years to come. And yes, as that statement might imply, there’s not a doubt in my mind that this is a horror movie for the ages, ensuring the [REC] series will stand proud as one of the truly iconic horror franchises. Bring on the fourth installment!
Aaaand rounding things off nicely for the night was Stitches, reviewed in full here.
Hit of the day – [REC]³.
If you thought Italian cinema of the 70s was nothing but westerns, giallos or zombie knock-offs, think again. Eurocrime is an in-depth and hugely entertaining documentary that looks deep into the oft-forgotten poliziotteschi (a genre so neglected I’m not even sure how it’s pronounced), entries of which were cranked out by the dozen from the early 70s onwards, riffing on the American cop and gangster movies of the time but putting a distinctly Italian spin on things, with a devil-may-care attitude to such trivialities as good taste, restraint or the safety of their actors. At just over two hours it does drag on a bit, but it provides a fascinating perspective on the Italian film industry of the time, leaving no stone unturned in considering how and why things were the way they were. We also have countless amusing anecdotes from the many Italian and American artists involved, from John Saxon, Henry Silva and Fred Williamson to the legend Enzo Castellari, most of whom are tremendously endearing; even Antonio Sabato, who comes off a monumentally arrogant prick.
Skipping out on Outpost 2: Black Sun as I’d already seen it on DVD (my review here), I returned to the main screen just as things got Italian again with Paura 3D. Directed by the Manetti Brothers, this film was apparently conceived and written during a break in post-production on their recent feature L’Arrivo di Wang. Alas, these rather haphazard origins show through in the end product. It’s intriguing enough at first, with three working class young men enduring hard times who leap at the opportunity to get an illicit taste of the high life; soon it turns into a kind of inverted backwoods horror, in which the affluent man is the embodiment of evil. There may at first be some attempts at class war commentary, and perhaps a hint of Joseph Fritzl analogy, but it descends into lame torture/stalker cliché before long. To my surprise, the one thing I actually found myself appreciating of the film was its use of 3D, the emphasis on deep, layered shots providing an interesting atmospheric effect.
Next up Greg Nicotero was presented with the inaugral FrightFest Variety award for lifetime achievement in horror, and a short but sweet interview with the great man livened the mood all too briefly. Alas, things were not drastically improved on the film front by Steven C Miller’s Under The Bed. (Incidentally this was preceded by a clip from Miller’s upcoming Silent Night, which I must say did not look promising at all.) A peculiar blend of family-based drama and 80s-style kiddie horror, but with a surprisingly hard edge, it deals with two brothers who are menaced by a beast under the bed which, naturally, no one believes to be real but them. To take such a conceit and play it completely straight is a risky move, and one that sadly does not pay off. It takes itself far too seriously, underplaying everything right up until the ridiculously excessive finale undoes all that went before. The result is a film that’s way too nasty for young kids, but too juvenile for older horror fans; a real oddity, and a real disappointment.
And while we’re on the subject of disappointing oddities… Tulpa. Now, I’ll warrant you straight away that I am not the target audience for this film, as I’m not a fan of the giallo at all, and this Federico Zampaglione film is pitched as a revival of the Italian cinema staple. And from a certain perspective, it might just work. It has slick visuals, an absurd plot full of characters saying and doing ridiculous things, and a killer all in black right down to the hat and gloves. Perhaps the problem here is that Tulpa skirts a fine line between homage and pastiche. The FrightFest audience was barking with laughter for much of this film, and I’m not certain that was entirely the reaction the attending cast and crew might have been hoping for. Well, if you took an 80s Argento, threw in a bit more sex and some vague allusions toward Tibetan mysticism, and filtered the result through a few decades of ironic revisionism, and I suppose this would be what you were left with. Not my cup of tea.
Happily, the day ended on a haunting high note with Franck Khalfoun’s remake of Maniac, reviewed here.
Hit of the day: Maniac, hands down.
This was the day I finally managed to get hold of a couple of Discovery screen tickets, which are given out on a first-come first-serve basis, and caught German vampire chick flick We Are The Night. In a nutshell: Lisbeth Salander-lite meets a domineering blonde bombshell, a moody 20s-style flapper and a distinctly non-Japanase wannabe Harajuku girl; they turn out to be vampires. In no short order, Lisbeth-lite gets bit, suffers Ally Sheedy-esque instant makeover, goes clubbing and shopping and driving luxury cars with plates that read BIG6969 and FUCK1, they bite people, then shit goes south and vamp girls start burning up. Marc reviewed this a while back and was lukewarm on it, but all in all I thought it was great fun. Sure, it’s a pretty formulaic vamp romp – basically an urban, all-girl Near Dark by way of Blade and Underworld – but it’s nicely photographed and edited with decent SFX and make-up, a good level of violence and sex appeal and a likeable cast. Certainly more enjoyable than the bulk of what I saw on the main screen this year.
Ah, but if only I could say the same for the next feature I saw on the Discovery screen, microbudget Brit horror The Inside. How best to put this succinctly: ever thought to yourself that The Blair Witch Project would’ve been better if it had a bunch of young girls getting beaten up, raped and repeatedly called “fucking cunts,” before turning into a third rate replica of The Descent, then proceeding to drag on for at least forty-five minutes longer than it has any right to? Well, evidently writer/director Eoin Macken had that thought, and this unspeakable cinematic abortion is the result. Again, as with Tulpa I guess I’m not the ideal viewer here given I have little taste for either found footage or ordeal horror, but even so this film really does take the biscuit for imbecilic, derivative toss that doesn’t know when to end. The Inside is easily down there in the bottom five films I’ve seen in three years of FrightFests, and I can’t adequately surmise my annoyance at missing the short films showcase because of it.
Thankfully, the next main screen feature was a major return to form, in the shape of Sleep Tight; a fitting inclusion after Paco Plaza’s [REC]3, given it’s the most recent effort from the other half of the [REC] team Jaume Balaguero. Already released to reputedly huge success in its native Spain, it’s pitched as a Hitchcock/Polanski-esque suspense thriller, following the exploits of a seemingly benevolent apartment building concierge who is quietly abusing his powers in some very sinister ways indeed. As I haven’t yet seen recent Hammer film The Resident, I confess I was unaware of any similiarities (it was a little bit of a shock to hear a participant in the post-screening Q&A casually drop the word ‘plagirised’ in there), but I can attest to how effective Sleep Tight is; a highly tense, disturbing and often darkly funny piece of work. Don’t want to say too much about the plot lest I spoil the potential fun readers may have with this film, suffice to say it’s very well shot and acted, expertly paced, and sure to appeal to the malicious sociopath within us all.
Next, and last of the festival for me was Berberian Sound Studio – and a real high note that was to go out on. Full review here.
Hit of the day: from a critical perspective I really should say Sleep Tight and/or Berberian Sound Studio, but if I’m honest I probably had the most fun with We Are The Night.
So, overall feelings on FrightFest the 13th… honestly, I am a little bummed out by it this year, partly because I couldn’t be there for the full five days, but more so because so much of what I saw was sub-par. Saturday in particular was an extremely frustrating day, bookended well by the very good Eurocrime and Maniac but with every film in between proving a tedious let-down; and once again, Sunday’s The Inside was truly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen at the festival, just offensively bad. But it certainly helps that the best entries were so damn good: [REC] 3, Maniac, Sleep Tight and Berberian Sound Studio are truly great, whilst Nightbreed: Cabal Cut, Stitches and We Are The Night were just that bit enjoyable enough.
But don’t worry, fearless reader – our FrightFest 2012 journey does not end there, for while I was not able to attend opening or closing day, other members of the BaH crew were; so watch this space…